My sister Theresa and I started this website, Nasty Women Writers, three years ago, our goal being to highlight feminist women writers, artists, and activists, many of whom have been marginalized, silenced, and erased.
Last year I wrote a post about Dr. Tererai Trent (The Awakened Woman: Remembering and Reigniting Our Sacred Dreams), an incredible woman from Zimbabwe who wrote the book The Awakened Woman. Occasionally my sister and I will follow up on a woman we’ve written about to see what’s happening, if there are any new projects they may be working on, or any updates in general. When I went back to check on Dr. Tererai Trent, I discovered something fabulous: A statue had been created of her and was on display in New York City!
I discovered that the organization, Statues for Equality, headed by Australian artists Gillie and Marc Schattner, had erected 10 statues of inspiring, contemporary women along 6th Avenue in August of 2019, making progress in their goal of achieving gender equality in public statues worldwide. Before these 10 statues, only 3% of the statues in NYC depicted women.
The 10 originally displayed on 6th Avenue were Dr. Tererai Trent and Oprah Winfrey, who have been relocated to San Francisco, Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman, Pink, and Jane Goodall, who have been moved to Brooklyn, and Gabby Douglass, Cheryl Strayed, Tracy Dyson and Janet Mock, who still stand on 6th Avenue awaiting decision for their next location.
Another post I wrote for Nasty Women Writers is on Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Wollstonecraft: A Wild Wish) born in 1759 in England and known as the ‘foremother of feminism’. As I was reading her Vindication of the Rights of Women and researching her life, I discovered a group that has been working to get a statue of Wollstonecraft put up in the London park near where she was born and lived a good part of her life. This group is aptly called Mary on the Green (Visibility Matters: A Statue for Mary Wollstonecraft), and this statue honoring Wollstonecraft was due to be unveiled last month, but due to COVID 19 has been postponed. In London, close to 90% of the statues are of men.
I was happy to discover that there are other organizations in addition to the two mentioned above working to establish more of a gender balance in statues. There is certainly no shortage of women worthy of recognition, so many remarkable women who have been left out of our single-narrative history, women symbolically missing from public spaces.
For the most part, these organizations working to break what is called “the bronze and marble ceiling” have not outwardly advocated for the removal of existing statues and monuments. The debate about whether to remove statues of historical figures who do not represent our shared values, and those who committed atrocities, and whether contextualizing them in some fashion might appease, has been ongoing. Yet, this has not been the focus of groups like Statues for Equality and Mary on the Green.
Then George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight by a cop and it was a tipping point.
Our country is not willing to live with racism, inequality, and oppression any longer. Statues were vandalized and toppled in cities all over the country. Most of the statues knocked off their pedestals were of white men who designed and upheld a racist society. They had to fall as a visual symbol of our demand for change.
Now there are unexpected vacancies in parks and public spaces across our country, with more to come.
Consider the purpose of a statue. Most statues are on a pedestal, demanding we look up to them. Statues are usually the likeness of a person, a person we are taught to honor, to recognize. Statues are strategically placed in public spaces with the objective of reminding us of those who have served the greater good, made an extraordinary contribution to our country and world.
Yet, the majority of statues in this country are of white men who have not necessarily served the greater good but have been self-serving, not inclusive of others, often blatantly oppressive. And many of the statues are of the same white men, over and over. This repetitive phenomenon, this heaping and hoarding, is known as the Matthew Effect.
I discovered the Matthew Effect by way of our Nasty Women Writers project too. I came across a term called the Matilda Effect and curious what it meant and where it came from, I discovered Matilda Joslyn Gage, a woman who worked alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B Anthony for women’s right to vote. That was until Gage didn’t agree with Stanton and Anthony at one of the movement’s crossroads and was consequently sidelined.
While reading about Matilda Joslyn Gage (Matilda Joslyn Gage: In Her Name), I discovered she wrote an essay about women not receiving credit for the inventions and scientific discoveries they were making. One hundred years later, Margaret Rossiter, a current historian of science, read Gage’s essay and knew exactly what she was referring to: how male scientists often received the credit and awards for discoveries made by the women. Margaret Rossiter decided to call this phenomenon the Matilda Effect since Matilda Joslyn Gage was one of the first to articulate it. Rossiter also chose this name because she was playing on the already well-known phenomenon, the Matthew Effect.
The Matthew Effect was coined by sociologists Robert Merton and Harriet Zuckerman in 1968. It gets its name from a passage in the biblical Gospels of Matthew and basically refers to the premise that those who have recognition and fame will get more; those who have power and wealth will receive more. Whereas, those who have no recognition will probably remain unknown; those who do not have wealth and power, will not gain any, and, get this, will most likely lose what they do have. What a system. It’s been around for a while.
And there you have it, hundreds of statues across the country representing the same white men, over and over.
Shall we topple the Matthew Effect, along with the offensive statues?
Because there are space and momentum for change now.
So, I ask, who do you want to see for statues in your city’s parks and public spaces?
A woman I want to see a statue of is Margaret Fuller (Margaret Fuller’s Manifesto).
Before I list all she did, let me discuss what Margaret Fuller stood for. She was born when our country was but 34 years old in terms of its independence from Britain and she had a vision for who we could be.
Fuller believed in liberty and equal rights for everyone. She was appalled and dismayed by the power and land grab happening in the westward expansion. She was against the removal of the American Indian. She was against the enslavement of the blacks. She fought for equal rights for girls and women and was a proponent of equal education for all. She believed every person had unlimited potential and the right to be free. She advocated for social reform in prisons and insane asylums, as they were called then. She recognized and made others aware of the plight of the immigrant and the poor.
Fuller was courageous and determined; she refused to back down, she refused to give up. Fuller could see what was just, she could see what was good, and she stayed focused on this. She was an exemplar role model, demonstrating how to live a purposeful life.
At a time when few opportunities were available to women, Fuller was a literary critic, an editor, a journalist, a writer who wrote the first major feminist book in this country, an educator, a social reformer, a foreign correspondent, the most intelligent woman in the United States at the time with a worldwide reputation. Fuller was a brilliant mind, a brilliant speaker – a true visionary.
Many mocked Fuller, often using a line from her book Woman in the Nineteenth Century, “Let them be sea captains,” referring to allowing women to be whatever they wanted to be, to do whatever they wanted to do. Fuller didn’t believe in limits and perhaps if the captain of the ship she sailed on from Italy back to the US had a female captain, it wouldn’t have been wrecked and cost her life, along with the lives of her husband and son.
Most of her male colleagues and friends are well known today and have statues in their likeness: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Alan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Horace Greeley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others.
I am advocating for a statue of Margaret Fuller in Washington, DC, and if not there, in Boston or Cambridge where she was born and spent the greater part of her life. I envision a sculpture unlike the traditional ones. One more like the one going up of Mary Wollstonecraft in London, of a woman rising up toward the sky, representing all women. Yes, something like that for Fuller, a representation of the unlimited potential of the human spirit when set free. I envision Fuller rising from the waves, reaching for the stars, representing pure transcendence.
For when Fuller drowned off the shores of Fire Island 170 years ago, she did not disappear. What attempted to make her disappear was a patriarchal culture that did not value her contributions. A statue honoring her today would remind us that what she stood for is still relevant today and very much needed (Collective Restoration: Bring Us Back!).
On June 7, a statue of a man who made his fortune through the slave trade was toppled in Bristol, England. It was replaced by a life-sized statue of a Black Lives Matter protester, a young black woman with her fist reaching toward the sky with determination. Unfortunately, that sculpture has now been removed too, and will be returned to the artist.
But there is the discussion in Bristol about who or what should be placed on that vacant pedestal.
So, I ask again, who do you want to see in your open spaces and public places? Let’s raise our voices and participate in the discussions!
© Maria Dintino 2020